I hate PowerPoint. I hate what it has done to modern meetings, and I hate the fact that it is expected that one will produce slides for each meeting. Am I being a little strong here? Maybe the verb should be lament. Yes, I lament the dominance of PowerPoint in today’s meetings.
Edward Tufte has described the problem supremely in his essay, “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint”, and his criticism is devastating. His argument is not so much that people use PowerPoint incorrectly, though he does show many examples of poor usage, but that PowerPoint itself degrades the fidelity of crucial conversations within any organization that it touches. While PowerPoint’s hierachical bullet-point format can help speakers organize and remember the flow of their points, it is entirely useless for audiences, who scan the points rather than listen to the speaker. And speakers often simply read the point, which in turn annoys the audience because most can read five times faster than the speaker can speak.
I recently read Cliff Atkinson’s “Beyond Bullet Points”, which is written for people whose goal is to persuade and who use the presentation as their tool. In that book, Atkinson challenges the reader to think of the audience, and to tell a story to the audience. The story should take the form of a play, in which characters are faced with challenges and take actions. If you are presenting a product, you should talk about the product’s usage, not the product itself. Then Atkinson suggests that presenters should use PowerPoint to display compelling visuals that augment the spoken word, not to remind the speaker of what they should say next. It is challenging to write a presentation in this way; you have to think differently because you can’t simply explain a technology; you have to get inside the head of a potential buyer or user.
I think that Tufte might not disagree with Atkinson’s direction, for presentations that are intended to persuade. But the very act of persuasion in this way is something that Tufte fundamentally despises, mostly because in his view there is too much persuasion and too little factual analysis in this world.
By contrast, Tufte’s domain is the technical presentation, the presentation (primarily) of quantitative data to convey understanding. If Tufte aims to persuade, he does it with evidence, not merely stories or emotion.
What does Tufte suggest, then, that we use in place of PowerPoint. First of all, he says, you need good content; good evidence. To present that evidence, Tufte suggests many individual techniques, but for reports and presentations, he suggests that we write a report and require it to be read before the presentation. Written and illustrated information can be absorbed more effectively and efficiently for many people, than can verbal discussion. Once the evidence is absorbed by the audience, Tufte suggests that we gather to discuss. Many of our executives are accustomed to reading information in the Wall Street Journal and other sources, which have relatively dense information content. Why then, should we not convey our evidence to them in similarly compact format?
I have tried this approach in several meetings. Frequently I will provide 10 minutes at the beginning of the meeting to read my report. For those who have already read it, they get a bonus 10 minutes. Then we can spend the remaining 30-40 minutes discussing the report, rather than me delivering it to them verbally. (Verbal delivery is very slow, like downloading images at 9600 baud compared to high-speed internet.)
The reception to the approach has been mixed for me. Generally I find that the discussion is fruitful and satisfying because the report has been conveyed. But I admit that people are thrown off by it.
Please share your experience with us and our readers. What are your thoughts? What approaches have you tried to escape the gravitational pull of PowerPoint?